All-Virtual CES 2021 Focuses on Innovation Despite Pandemic

The sprawl of CES, typically measured in millions of square feet of exhibit space, multiple venues, and hundreds of thousands of attendees, now spans the globe as the Consumer Technology Association (CTA) sets “the global stage for innovation” in an all-digital format when it opens its four-day run on January 11. However dispersed, CES Week will still be the focal point for the consumer technology sector and trends will emerge, even if news and product announcements will originate from both CES events and individual company presentations.

CES 2021 is shaping up less as a showcase for future technology and more as a bellwether for a world massively altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. This year, instead of four or five key product trends to define our media and entertainment industry focus, the ETC@USC team anticipates these four dynamics to drive much of the discussion: Adaptation, Change, Snapback and Opportunity.

Without question, the pandemic forced virtually every industry to accelerate their digital transformation. “As a world we have moved to this digital transformation quicker,” said Gary Shapiro, CEO of CTA, at a pre-show media briefing (click the image below for video of select comments). “Technology changed us and allowed us to live, work and learn at home all while keeping valuable connections with each other.”

Technology providers and media companies have been compelled to respond and have overnight altered and innovated ways to adapt and survive the pandemic. Some have enjoyed new success while others struggle to stay above water.

Some of these adaptations will represent a fundamental change. Companies leading or preparing for established trends, such as the advent of 5G, AI, augmented reality, OTT, smart homes and digital health were enabled by the pandemic necessities to accelerate their development and deployment.

Deployment of the coronavirus vaccine in 2021 will enable some measure of return to pre-pandemic behavior. Moviegoing and live music will not remain confined to online consumption forever. We will be looking for examples and indications of snapback but expect that “return to normal” will include pandemic accelerated improvements and new opportunities.

Never in between CES shows has the entire world changed more dramatically. Audience practice and expectations have been altered. Technological change has flooded in to meet needs and also suggests that the social change and device experience now forms a platform of experience innovation that can be an accelerated opportunity.

“There’s so much out there that’s had to change because of COVID-19,” Shapiro told Dean Takahashi of VentureBeat. “Companies now have the opportunity to talk about what’s different. Every company has something different because of COVID-19.”

“As for hot technologies,” Takahashi reports, “Shapiro sees 5G broadband wireless networks taking off, 8K TVs, enterprise technologies, health tech, robotics, augmented reality and virtual reality, and drones.”

Keynote presentations from Verizon, GM, and AMD build on past appearances; however, the late addition of Best Buy’s CEO Corie Barry to the keynote lineup provides a street level perspective as well as a showcase for how Best Buy has navigated a tumultuous retail environment.

Ann Sarnoff, chair and CEO of WarnerMedia Studios and Networks Group, will look at entertainment in the post-pandemic environment during a session that includes a panel of leading marketers and media buyers. Further evidence of a consumer and retail focus this year are presentations by Mastercard and Accenture, Walmart and Microsoft, which is also providing the digital infrastructure for CES.

“Industry sales are up significantly in 2020 because people needed tech for education, for working from home,” Shapiro said in his VentureBeat interview. “They’re buying all sorts of things. Video games are off the charts. All sorts of things have jumped. 5G phones have jumped. 8K televisions hit almost a million units this year, and even more next year. 4K is incredible.”

The New York Times Tech Fix columnist Brian X. Chen looked at technology for 2021 and predicts continued transformation in the home shopping space, much of it driven by augmented reality built in to higher-end phones today. According to eMarketer, advertisers are expected to spend about $2.4 billion on mobile AR advertising worldwide this year, which is up a significant 71 percent from $1.4 billion in 2020.

Chen also sees Wi-Fi 6, a new generation of smart routers, optimizing bandwidth and “tech that virtualizes work and self-care.” Research by the National Retail Federation and Forrester found that “67 percent of retailers surveyed now accept some form of no-touch payment. That includes 58 percent that accept contactless cards that can be waved past a card reader or tapped on the reader, up from 40 percent last year, and 56 percent that take digital wallet payments on mobile phones, up from 44 percent.”

Digital health and personal care have been a booming trend at CES for the past several years, even more so in this year of COVID-19. In his Tom’s Guide CES preview, Mike Prospero observed, “The global pandemic affected a number of tech sectors, rapidly accelerating the adoption of at-home gym equipment, networking technology (think mesh routers), voice-enabled door locks, and more. And just because there’s a vaccine doesn’t mean that’s going to change any time soon.”

“People aren’t suddenly going to get rid of their Peloton once the crisis is over,” CTA VP of market research Steve Koenig told Prospero. “These things are going to stick around because they’re super convenient.”

ETC@USC will be reporting throughout CES week, aggregating the most relevant news, covering much of the 100+ hours of conference programming, and looking for interesting new products and companies on the leading edge.

Click here for more information on the speakers, panels and new products at CES 2021 (#CES2021).

[Video content courtesy of the Consumer Technology Association. All rights reserved.]